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Toussaint Louverture: A Biography (Vintage)

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Toussaint Louverture: A Biography (Vintage) Cover

ISBN13: 9781400079353
ISBN10: 1400079357
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At the end of the 1700s, French Saint Domingue was the richest and most brutal colony in the Western Hemisphere. A mere twelve years later, however, Haitian rebels had defeated the Spanish, British, and French and declared independence after the first—and only—successful slave revolt in history. Much of the success of the revolution must be credited to one man, Toussaint Louverture, a figure about whom surprisingly little is known. In this fascinating biography, Madison Smartt Bell, award-winning author of a trilogy of novels that investigate Haitis history, combines a novelists passion with a deep knowledge of the historical milieu that produced the man labeled a saint, a martyr, or a clever opportunist who instigated one of the most violent events in modern history. The first biography in English in over sixty years of the man who led the Haitian Revolution, this is an engaging reexamination of the controversial, paradoxical leader.

About the Author

Madison Smartt Bell has published twelve novels and two collections of short stories. His novels include Soldier's Joy, Dr. Sleep, Ten Indians, and Save Me, Joe Louis. His eighth novel, All Souls' Rising, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Bell, a Professor of English and Director of the Kratz Center for Creative Writing at Goucher College, lives in Maryland with his family.

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rollyson2002, September 26, 2012 (view all comments by rollyson2002)
"Toussaint Louverture" (Pantheon, 333 pages, $27) is a beautifully composed discourse on a revolutionary world, a work in a class all its own. Madison Smart Bell's sentences seem suffused with the steamy intrigue and violence of Saint Domingue, the French name for 18th century Haiti.

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Reunion Des Musees Nationaux / Art Resource, NY
Toussaint Louverture emerged as the hero from the Haitian Revolution, only to become a dictator, Carl Rollyson writes in a review of Madison Smart Bell’s ‘Toussaint Louverture’. Above, a detail of an engraving of Louverture by an anonymous artist.

Toussaint Louverture (c. 1743��"1803) arose from the murk of events as mysteriously and as forcefully as Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen in "Absalom, Absalom!" Like the "demon" Sutpen, a refugee planter from the West Indies ruthlessly establishing his kingdom in southern Mississippi, Louverture was like a "voudou" spirit, exploding on the colonial scene: "Toussaint slept for no more than two hours a night, and his endurance, both in the saddle and in the office, was astounding to all who encountered it." Toussaint had the mind of an administrator but also the tactical skills of a great general.

Toussaint, in Mr. Bell's prose, figures as a Nietzschean superman in a hurry. He was in his 50s when a half million Haitian slaves rose up against their oppressors in 1794. But Toussaint, a Creole, had already been free for a good decade before the mass revolt. He was built like a jockey, and seems to have made himself invaluable to his white owners because he was so good with horses and on horses. This skill served him well: He appeared, in his revolutionary heydey, to be everywhere at once. No one could pin him down.

But Toussaint had owned slaves. He was not a nationalist. And it is not clear to Mr. Bell that Toussaint ever wanted independence for his land. So what did Toussaint want, and why did he, like Napoleon, emerge from the ranks of the revolution to become its dictator? He played one faction off another in Machiavellian fashion while at the same time demonstrating a strategic skill in deploying troops and negotiating victories without taking many casualties. Like Bonaparte, he believed he had to take charge among rivals that were tearing one another apart.

To begin, Toussaint wanted to preserve a plantation system in which ex-slaves would return to their labors as free men reasonably compensated for their work.

Mr. Bell does not say why Toussaint favored such a moderate solution, but I infer from the narrative that since Toussaint himself had prospered in the ancien régime, a political solution had to be found that did not destroy the economic basis of his civilization.

But Toussaint also had to deal with a fragmented body politic that would have tested the wits of any political genius: a Byzantine color grid of 64 gradations of gens de couleur (colored people) that inevitably fomented rivalries that had Toussaint negotiating at his Machiavellian best; a rancorous relationship between the grande blancs and the petits blancs, "a population of merchants, artisans, sailors, international transients, and fortune seekers," and a French colonial administration that see-sawed between free-theblacks radicals and return-themto-slavery reactionaries.

Still, I did not realize just how complicated Toussaint was until Mr. Bell's last chapter, where he deftly describes how earlier Toussaint biographies made Toussaint out to be a saint or devil. He is neither one in Mr. Bell's book. Instead, as in the progress of "Absalom, Absalom!," in which Sutpen and the circumstances he encountered become steadily more complex as more narrators interact with one another to tell his story, Toussaint becomes caught up in events that are partly the result of his own duplicity.

Napoleon knew he had two choices: work with Toussaint and accept free labor as a consequence, or invade and restore the grande blancs to power. Against his better judgment (or so he claimed in retrospect), Napoleon acceded to the importunate grande blancs and sent General LeClerc to put down Toussaint and bring him back to a French prison.

Toussaint resisted the invasion because the price of French hegemony meant a return to slavery. Mr. Bell suggests that the French forces were not overwhelming ��" another reason Toussaint saw no need to capitulate. Yet, in the end, Toussaint put himself into French custody, for reasons historians and biographers still debate and which Mr. Bell does not presume to settle.

Judging by his letters, Toussaint thought he could cut a deal with the French. He also rightly believed that a French victory would only be temporary and that the roots of liberty in his land were already deep enough to survive his defeat and demise.

If Toussaint's motivations remain something of an enigma in Mr. Bell's biography, this is all to the good. Like any great novelist, this biographer respects the inscrutability of human nature, thereby elevating the genre of biography to the highest level.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9781400079353
Author:
Bell, Madison Smartt
Publisher:
Vintage Books USA
Subject:
Political
Subject:
Historical - General
Subject:
Haiti History Revolution, 1791-1804.
Subject:
Toussaint Louverture
Subject:
Biography-Political
Subject:
haiti;biography;history;caribbean;colonialism;revolution;slavery
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Vintage
Publication Date:
20080231
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
MAP
Pages:
352
Dimensions:
7.98x5.26x.83 in. .55 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Biography » General
Biography » Historical
Biography » Political
History and Social Science » Ethnic Studies » General
History and Social Science » Latin America » Haiti

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